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Danger Ahead? : Focus on Profits Is Pushing Papers Into Mediocrity, Says Ex-Editor

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

J oey Buttafuoco! Bimbo eruptions! In this story!

So please don’t get impatient, even if you are among the new breed of citizens that James Squires says has little use for the important but rather difficult information this story attempts to convey.

You, after all, are exactly the sort of reader that the veteran newspaper editor most needs to convince that traditional journalism shouldn’t be allowed to die.

And if you can’t make it through this article, you sure as heck aren’t going to attempt “Read All About It!” Squires’ new book about the alleged ruin of the newspaper industry.

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Squires had just written his damning insider’s analysis of American journalism last spring when he got his chance to see the Fourth Estate from a slightly different perspective--as press secretary for guerrilla presidential candidate Ross Perot.

What he saw, Squires says, was largely a confirmation of his book’s central thesis: The news media of the 1990s have become “a celebrity-oriented, Wall Street-dominated, profit-driven entertainment enterprise dedicated foremost to delivering advertising images to targeted groups of consumers.”

Today’s “press managers,” he says, are a bit like crack smokers or the big spenders in Congress: Their addiction is “excessive profits.” And increasingly, Squires says, they profit by pandering to information consumers who have “the attention span of flash bulbs.”

None of which, he concludes, is good for democracy.

It wasn’t always so, Squires, 49, fairly chanted as he raced through Los Angeles last week on an author tour, delivering his message of probable doom to a luncheon at The Times, to Southern California’s talk radio listeners and in an interview.

As Squires tells his story, journalism’s descent into profit-driven mediocrity coincided with the rise of his own career.

A childhood memory, Squires says, reflects the impetus for the book, which is spreading through newsrooms like a computer virus.

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In third grade at a Catholic school, Sister Margaret taped Jimmy’s mouth shut one day and sent him into the hallway, where, to his embarrassment, a visiting bishop encountered him.

In following years, Squires scrambled through the newspaper hierarchy, becoming, as editor of the Chicago Tribune for eight years, one of journalism’s “popes.”

Along the way, he continued to find trouble by saying what was on his mind, Squires recalls in a voice redolent of his East Nashville, Tenn., boyhood.

When he finally wore out his welcome as Tribune editor in 1989, it was “like being sent into the hallway with tape on my mouth.”

Writing “Read All About It!” was “ripping the tape off.”

Squires’ idealism about the role of the press traces to his roots.

At age 9, he began selling a paper called the Old Hickory News. He later delivered the Nashville Banner and then, at 19, talked his way into a part-time job in the library of the Nashville Tennessean, from which he finally emerged as an aggressive cub reporter.

Squires came of age at a time when most papers were owned by powerful families who tended to share Walter Lippmann’s view that reporters were “the beam of a searchlight that moved restlessly about bringing one episode and then another out of the darkness into vision.”

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When Squires first set foot in the lobby of the Chicago Tribune Towers in 1972, he discovered that advertising and circulation people had several banks of elevators at their disposal. But reporters and editors waited for elevators that went exclusively to the fourth floor.

This segregation had high purpose, he says: It dictated that decisions about the business of selling newspapers and advertisements be made at cautious distance from the loftier mission of fulfilling the public’s right to know about the important issues of government and society.

But as corporate owners bought out eccentric family empires and other papers folded, creating monopolies, Squires claims, getting to the bottom of important matters was subjugated to the all-important bottom line.

With few exceptions, he argues, newspapers value profits above Pulitzer Prizes. “Now, there no longer is even the illusion that public service is the first goal of the institution,” Squires writes.

Although the Tribune won seven Pulitzers during his tenure as editor and became a world-class news organization, Squires confesses that he “stayed too long and accepted too many bonuses to make a martyrs’ list.”

And when he left the paper, 17 years after his arrival, all elevators served all floors.

Tribune Co. executives refuse to comment on Squires’ book, according to a spokeswoman who offered only a prepared statement:

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“We disagree with his opinions about Tribune Co. and about the newspaper industry in general. We’re not going to comment on specific incidents in the book. We believe the record of Tribune Co. will speak for itself.”

Squires, bolstered by a $1-million golden handshake, lives with his wife, Mary Anne, outside Lexington, Ky., where they raise horses. “Until recently he taught “Press and Democracy” to students at Harvard and Middle Tennessee State University. His message to students wasn’t resoundingly cheerful.

Squires believes a complex alliance of forces has assaulted the news industry, not the least of which is technological change.

To counter the powerful draw of television and other media, he says, newspapers increasingly follow a strategy of shorter, more cheerful stories, as pioneered by Allen H. Neuharth, who launched USA Today and reshaped many newspapers owned by Gannett, the nation’s largest chain.

As the trend toward “infotainment” continues, Squires believes, newspapers will become “consumer-driven and relatively free from information that is unpleasant, complex, unattractive or dull. . . .”

The emphasis, Squires writes, will shift “toward news about celebrities and sports figures, titillating details of the personal lives of the rich and famous and a preoccupation with reporting the latest, the most trendy and most provocatively wretched of human travails.”

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Like Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher, bimbos on the campaign trail, Jeffrey Dahmer.

But the imperative to compete with technology and the entertainment media is hardly the only force undermining traditional journalism, Squires argues.

In the past, he says, newspaper owners were willing to temper financial gains to ensure journalistic quality: “In today’s world,” Squires writes, “it works the other way around.”

As evidence, he cites the fact that newspapers’ profitability has “just about doubled” in the last 20 years.

But those profits, he says, have cost journalism--and readers.

Soon after newspaper executives conducted demographic studies to find the educated big spenders that advertisers covet, Squires says, they launched surveys to find out what kinds of stories those readers wanted:

“Today, with few exceptions, the final responsibility for newspaper content rests with the business executive in charge of the company, not the editor.”

The problems of press corporatization go into a dangerous spiral, he contends, as a poorly informed public loses its ability to judge what is responsible journalism.

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He cites the public’s docile acceptance of the Pentagon’s control of the press during the 1991 Gulf War: “A large percentage of the public now can’t tell when the press is doing a good job. They basically said the press should keep its nose out of the war. If we are developing into a society that doesn’t care if it’s being lied to, that’s absolute proof that the press isn’t doing its job of educating the public.”

There are exceptions, he says, like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times.

At the latter, staff members’ attention has been riveted for weeks on a voluntary separation program, in which at least 500 full-time positions will be eliminated companywide to reduce labor costs in response to the recession.

Squires considers such efforts a necessary part of doing business and adds, “No serious paper has invested more money in covering the news than the (Los Angeles) Times.”

Such aggressive cost-cutting in the newspaper industry reveals new economic realities, he says.

There was a time when the industry might--just might--have stood up to Wall Street and insisted that such important businesses must be allowed to get by with merely good, rather than whopping, profits, he says.

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Some in the industry scoff at Squires’ more militant views.

Neuharth, the former Gannett chairman, is named by Squires as being instrumental in the corporatization of the news industry. Neuharth admits that corporations have been bad for some newspapers and even caused the death of a few.

But, he says, corporations have vastly improved other papers they have purchased.

Neuharth also disputes Squires’ contention that the trend toward USA Today-style “infotainment” is necessarily bad for journalism.

USA Today’s readers are by definition better informed, he says, because they simply wouldn’t be reading the “old news”: “There aren’t many readers left who will read a dull gray newspaper. . . . The younger generation . . . wants a maximum of news and entertainment in a minimum amount of space and time.”

Rolling Stone media critic Jon Katz thinks Squires, like other old-school editors, incorrectly assumes that the swirl of news industry changes has had or will have bad effects.

“One of the tragic miscalculations, evident in Squires’ book, is that . . . (newspapers) have refused to change to any substantial degree; they still report the news as if they were still first to report it,” Katz says.

But Eugene Roberts, top editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 18 years until he retired in 1990, shares Squires’ concerns about newspapers.

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“I think we’re at a crossroads. Newspaper companies have got to come to realize that you can’t increase profits and increase profits into infinity without putting your franchise into jeopardy,” he says. “And that’s exactly what many newspapers have become, franchises. . . .”

Roberts says that during a recent vacation, he met a woman from the Midwest who told him that her local paper used to be wonderful.

“She said now she can read the Sunday paper in 10 minutes,” he recalls. “They do notice. It’s folly and lunacy even to think that readers don’t notice . . . and furthermore, it’s more than a question of noticing.

“When they think their newspaper is less complete than it once was, they become less dependent on it, they think, ‘Well, I can’t really rely on my local paper for news.’ ”

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